KORG MicroKorg

David Battino reviews the Korg MicroKorg, a portable analog modeling synth with big sound and features that belie its small size.
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FIG.1: The MicroKorg delivers the enormous sound of Korg's MS2000 in alightweight, battery-powered box less than 21 inches wide. Its fivecontrol knobs work with two 11-step selector knobs to adjust nearly 200parameters.FIG.2: The MicroKorg's back panel provides audio inputs to the onboardvocoder's carrier and modulator sections. You can also route externalaudio through the synthesizer's filters, envelopes, andeffects.FIG.3: Korg's free patch editor-librarian (Mac/Win) lets you make sonicadjustments in real time and name your patches (though the MicroKorgcan't display the names). The Mac version has a randomizationfeature.FEATURES3.5EASE OFUSE2.5QUALITY OFSOUNDS4.0VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO5Manufacturer
KorgUSA
tel. (516) 333-9100
Web www.korg.comMicroKorgSpecifications
SoundEngineanalog-synthesismodeling, PCM-waveform playbackAudioInputs(1) unbalanced¼" line (oscillator 1/carrier);
(1) unbalanced ¼" mic/line (oscillator 1/modulator);
(1) unbalanced ¼" mic/line with 5 VDC powerAudioOutputs(2) unbalanced¼" TS; (1) ¼" stereo headphoneKeyboard37Velocity-sensitive minikeysPolyphony(4) notes inPoly mode; (2) notes in Layer modeMultitimbralParts1 (layeredtimbres share a MIDI channel)ProgramMemory(128) RAMlocationsOscillators(2) plus noiseand external inputOscillatorWaveformsoscillator 1:saw, square, triangle, sine, vox, noise, (64) DWGS waveforms;oscillator 2: saw, square, triangleFiltersresonant 2-polelowpass; 4-pole lowpass, bandpass, and highpassEnvelopes(2) ADSR,assignable to amplitude, filter cutoff, pitch, oscillator 1 waveformmodulation, oscillator 2 detuning, noise level, panning, and LFO 2level; switchable retriggeringLFOs(2) with temposync (whole-note to 32nd-note resolution); five waveformsEffectsdelay (3 types),chorus/flanger, phaser, 2-band shelving EQ, switchabledistortionVocoder(16) channelsgrouped as (8) stereo pairs; each pair has adjustable panning, level,frequency, and resonanceArpeggiator(6) types; (8)step mutes; adjustable gate and swing; quarter-note to 16th-notetriplet resolution; 20-300 bpm or external syncControllers(5) knobs; (8)arpeggio mute buttons; pitch wheel; mod wheelMIDIIn, Out,ThruPower9 VDC AC adapter(included) or (6) AA batteriesDimensions20.6" (W) ×2.8" (H) × 9.1" (D)Weight4.9 lb. (withoutbatteries and mic)

Playing the MicroKorg, I'm reminded of those clever Bose speakerdemonstrations in stereo stores: after blaring some impressivefull-range music, the demonstrator slyly pulls the grilles off whatlook like two enormous speakers at the front of the showroom, revealingthe impossibly small speakers behind them. But whereas the Bose systemneeds a hidden sub-woofer to work its magic, the thunderous MicroKorgfits comfortably on your lap or desktop. It even runs on batteries.

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Somehow, Korg has packed most of the features of its beefy-soundingMS2000 analog-modeling synthesizer into an instrument about the size oftwo issues of this magazine laid end to end. (For more informationabout the MS2000, see EM's review of the KorgMS2000R in the August 2000 issue and the August 2002 cover story,“AnalogSupermodels.”) To further sweeten the deal, the MicroKorgadds a vocoder innovation called Formant Hold, an improved arpeggiator,and a condenser microphone. What's more, it costs $650 less than theMS2000.

Shrinking the size and price required some compromises to theMicroKorg's physical layout, however. During the several months I spentwith the instrument, I was continually impressed by its sound and itsprogramming flexibility but was often frustrated by its user interface.The MicroKorg delivers extreme portability and sonic punch for abargain price, but is it for you? Read on.

CASE THE MUSIC

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In a strange collision of futuristic and retro design, theMicroKorg's case combines a gold-flake plastic body and real woodenside panels with 14 light-up buttons and 8 Minimoog-style knobs (seeFig. 1). Above the pitch and mod wheels are two cleveroctave-shift buttons. With each successive press, the illuminatedbuttons change from off to green to yellow to red, so you can tell at aglance how far the keyboard is transposed.

The MicroKorg's back panel offers some unexpected interfacingcapabilities (see Fig. 2). You get MIDI In, Out, and Thru; twounbalanced ¼-inch audio outputs; and a ¼-inch stereoheadphone jack, as well as two audio input channels with trim pots. Thefirst input channel provides both ¼-inch and ¼-inch jacks,which you can switch between mic and line level; only one of thosejacks can be active at a time. The included gooseneck condensermicrophone slides neatly into a slot in the back panel and plugs intothe ¼-inch input. The mic signal can either feed the vocoder'sanalysis (modulator) input or replace oscillator 1 in a synthesizerTimbre (more on this in a moment).

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The second input channel has a single ¼-inch line-level jack.It can either feed the vocoder's carrier input or, again, replaceoscillator 1 in a synthesizer Timbre. In Synthesizer mode, you can useboth input channels at the same time (they're summed to mono),controlling the balance with a knob or MIDI. I seriously warped a drumgroove by running a sample loop through the synth engine and changingparameters in real time. Two tricolor LEDs on the front panel show thesignal strength at the inputs.

The MicroKorg doesn't have a sustain-pedal jack, but with itslimited polyphony, there's not a lot to sustain. The jack would havebeen handy when using the MicroKorg as a MIDI controller, though. Thebottom of the case has a hatch for six AA batteries. I got about threehours of continuous operation from NiMH rechargeables before thedisplay started flashing like an online banner ad.

The keyboard has three octaves of unweighted, Velocity-sensitiveminikeys. The white keys are about three-fifths the length andfour-fifths the width of standard keys; the black keys are about halfas long and four-fifths as wide as standard keys. Although I enjoyedbeing able to reach extended chord voicings, the key action isannoyingly stiff and shallow, and the black keys are much stiffer thanthe white ones. Perhaps that's because their 1.75-inch length reducesleverage, but their unusual feel makes it difficult to play accurately(the arpeggiator compensates for that somewhat).

As a keyboardist, I initially found the MicroKorg's toylike keys tobe a major drawback, but then I made a startling discovery: only ahandful of the 128 factory presets have Velocity enabled. After turningon Velocity-sensitivity in the Virtual Patch section, I was able toplay the instrument much more expressively. Because nonkeyboardists— a large part of the market for a groove tool such as theMicroKorg — are often confused by the apparently inconsistentresponse of touch-sensitive keys, omitting Velocity response is perhapsunderstandable, but it makes more work for experienced players, whowill probably want to program it back in.

It may seem unfair to criticize a highly portable 4-voice instrumentfor having awkward keys, because it's likely that few people will usethe MicroKorg as their only keyboard, and many will use MIDI to triggerit from a full-size keyboard. However, a little less miniaturizationwould have made the MicroKorg much better. I would have preferred twooctaves of full-size keys to three octaves of tiny ones, even if thathad increased the instrument's size and price.

BIG ON FEATURES

Like the MS2000, the MicroKorg offers 4-note polyphony with twooscillators, a noise source, two LFOs, and two ADSR envelopes pervoice. The basic playable unit is called a Timbre. You can set uplayers containing two discrete Timbres (a staccato arpeggio and asustaining pad, for example), though you can't play the Timbresindividually on two MIDI channels or split them across the keyboard asyou can on the MS2000. The single or layered Timbres feed a singleeffects chain containing a modulation effect, delay, and 2-band EQ. Youcan also add mild distortion, but it's not adjustable.

In vocoder mode, there's just one oscillator — the carrier— and layering is disabled, as are four flexible modulationroutings Korg calls Virtual Patches. In their place, you have access toseveral useful vocoder parameters. Unlike most modeled (or real) analogsynths, the MicroKorg provides 71 oscillator waveforms, not just thestandard sine, sawtooth, and square.

Tempo synchronization is one of the MicroKorg's strong points. Youcan lock the LFOs and delay to the internal arpeggiator or MIDI Clock,with various rhythmic subdivisions. As with some groove boxes, you canuse illuminated buttons to mute and unmute individual steps in anarpeggio as the pattern plays — a feature the MS2000 lacks.

KNOB STORY

In Performance mode, the five knobs on the front panel's top rightadjust filter cutoff frequency, resonance, envelope attack and releasetimes, and internal tempo. All five knobs transmit MIDI ControlChanges. (On layered Programs, they affect only the currently selectedTimbre. Pressing the nearby Timbre Select button toggles betweenTimbres 1 and 2.) I wish the display switched briefly to show the newvalue when you turn the Performance knobs. To see the tempo, forexample, you have to enter Edit mode.

Turning either of the two big Edit Select knobs in the center of thepanel puts the MicroKorg in Edit mode, mapping the five Performanceknobs to the parameters listed in the 22-row table below them in 2 mmhigh type. Beige listings are for Synthesizer-mode parameters; greenlistings are for Vocoder mode. The detented Edit Select knobs snapsolidly into place — a dramatic contrast with the flimsy-feelingPerformance knobs. On my review unit, several Performance knobs wiggledlike loose teeth.

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As you learn the locations of your favorite parameters in the table,editing becomes much faster. If you want to adjust the mod wheel'svibrato response, for instance, you can turn the upper Edit Select knobto eight o'clock (Pitch) and then twirl Performance knob 5 (VibratoInt). It would be much easier if an LED were next to each row ofparameter listings so you could avoid scanning all 11 row headings tofind the one that matches the current Edit Select knob setting. Thehardest part is making sense of the display, which attempts to createwords out of seven-segment LEDs (eight if you count the decimal). Apositive-only square wave is identified as 59.2, for example, whichlooks like Sq.2 if you squint. (Korg points out that it isn't the onlycompany pinching that particular penny.)

Although editing from the MicroKorg's front panel sometimes feelslike trying to draw a perfect circle on an Etch A Sketch, two hiddentricks make it easier. One is to use the numerous shortcuts you accessby pressing the Shift button and then any other button. (Annoyingly,though, none of those functions are labeled.) The second trick is topress the currently lit Program Number button, which temporarilyreverts the Performance knobs to their normal functions without erasingyour other edits. For the easiest tweaking, download the free MicroKorgeditor-librarian software from Korg's Web site (see Fig. 3).

PRODUCTSUMMARY

Korg
MicroKorg analog-modeling synthesizer
$499

SYNTH YOU'RE HERE

Because EM has previously covered the nearly identical MS2000synthesizer engine in detail, I'll concentrate on the differences whilehighlighting some features that impressed me. The main feature missingfrom the MicroKorg is the MS2000's slick Mod Sequencer, which automatesplayback of performance changes. The MicroKorg has 8 vocoder bandsinstead of the MS2000's 16, but it adds the Formant Hold andarpeggiator step-muting features. However, the two instruments areconversant; I was able to load MS2000 patches I found on the Web intothe MicroKorg, and the MS2000 loads MicroKorg patches. Each instrumentsimply ignores features it doesn't support.

The first thing that struck me about the MicroKorg was what a hugesound it makes with only two oscillators. Unison mode and the onboardchorus thicken things considerably. Just dial up Program B28, NRG Stab,to see what I mean. Depending on the original waveform, an oscillatorparameter called Control 1 warps the waveshape in six different ways— from varying pulse width to adding FM — and it can bemodulated by knob, LFO, envelope, or any other source in the VirtualPatch section to produce animated timbres. (From looking at the frontpanel, you'd never guess that it does that, but I've provided someexamples online.) You can also set oscillator 1 to play a perfectfifth, generating lush chords despite the 4-note polyphony.

I was disappointed that you can't modulate envelope attack time withVelocity, which can make leads and brass patches more expressive; norcan the MicroKorg generate long, synchronized sweeps, because its LFOrate maxes out at one bar. On the plus side, the MicroKorg has aninterpolating delay effect. On many synths, if you change the delaytime as you play, you'll hear clicks, whereas the MicroKorg morphs theechoes to produce cool tape-scrubbing effects. You can hear this soundat the end of the MP3 demo Vocoder on Korg's site.

GET WITH THE PROGRAM

A big knob selects from eight Program banks labeled Trance,Techno/House, Electronica, D'n'B/Breaks, HipHop/Vintage, Retro,S.E./Hit, and Vocoder. (S.E. stands for Sound Effect.) Pressing theadjacent Bank Side button toggles between the A and B subbanks, eachholding eight Programs, for a total of 128 memory locations. It's oddthat Korg put genre names on the panel when all the Program locationsare user-rewritable (you can store a vocoder Program in any bank, forexample), but perhaps that makes the MicroKorg more intuitive toprospective buyers.

To call up a specific Program, you turn the big knob, press the BankSide button if necessary, and then press one of the eight ProgramNumber buttons. The button will light up and the three-digit LEDdisplay will indicate the current Program number, from A11 (TranceProgram A1) to B88 (Vocoder Program B8). The factory sounds areimpressive, though many seem designed mainly to show off thearpeggiator. Still, the MicroKorg offers a big helping of truly seismicbasses, cutting leads, some gorgeous pads, and even a few usable organsounds.

DARTH VOCODER

The MicroKorg's vocoder is amazingly flexible. It has dozens ofparameters, and I experimented with them all using the includedcondenser mic, an external dynamic mic, and various line-level signals.No matter what I did, however, I got a decidedly fuzzy sound. With justeight bands, the vocoder isn't the smoothest or most intelligible, butit has an appealing retro quality. Getting a consistent level whilevocalizing takes practice — several players recommend inserting acompressor — but once you get the hang of it, you can shape notesvery expressively. In fact, if you reduce the level of the directsignal, you can blithely sing off-key without affecting the pitch ofthe output.

Pressing the Formant Hold button while vocalizing “locksin” the current sound of the vocoder, effectively creating asingle-cycle oscillator waveform so you can play subsequent noteswithout additional audio input. Formant Hold is a snapshot of thevocoder's filter settings, providing an easy way to make raspy,Mellotron-like tones. You can include Formant Hold data when you save aProgram. The only downside is that you give up almost all modulationoptions when you use the vocoder — even Velocity.

Although the MicroKorg's arpeggiator has the same six basic patternsas the MS2000, there's a bonus: when you turn the lower Edit Selectknob to Arpeg.A or Arpeg.B, the eight Program Number buttons becomemutes for the first eight steps of the pattern. If you hold a four-notechord with the Up pattern engaged, the first note will always hit onsteps 1 and 5. But with patterns or chords that don't divide evenlyinto eight parts, the mutes will affect different notes each timethrough the arpeggio. Furthermore, you can limit the step count to anynumber between one and eight. I made a wind-chime sound and triggeredfive black keys with a seven-step random arpeggio, producinghours of unique patterns. Adjustable gate-time and swing add tothe variety.

IN A CLASS BY ITSELF

The MicroKorg defies categorization. Viewed as a toy, it's fun,powerful, and great-sounding. Viewed as a sound module and vocoder,it's inexpensive, flexible — and great-sounding. Viewed as astandalone instrument, the MicroKorg is still inexpensive, but it'scompromised by a clumsy keyboard and a cramped display. That said, noother keyboard instrument delivers the MicroKorg's killer sound in apackage that weighs less than five pounds and runs on batteries.

In the end, it comes down to portability. The MicroKorg is ideal forgenerating analog sound effects, vocoded pads, synchronized arpeggios,and simple riffs and bass lines on the go. For more traditionalkeyboard duties such as playing electric piano, Clavinet, and organ,you're probably better off with a more expensive (and more expressive)instrument.

For studio use, most members of the Korg users' groups on Yahoo seemto prefer spending the extra $100 for a rackmount MS2000R or a usedMS2000 keyboard, because the 2000s offer many more knobs, a biggerdisplay, and the powerful Mod Sequencer. (Korg recently announced arepainted MS2000 called the MS2000B. Other than a new finish and set ofpatches, the only apparent difference is the included microphone, whichhas obviously been a hit on the MicroKorg.) Those instruments lack theMicroKorg's unlimited portability, however.

It's easy to slip into critic mode and forget that making music issupposed to be fun. The MicroKorg is frustrating if you expect to playand program it like a full-size keyboard synthesizer, but as aportable, creative gadget, it stands alone. If you can justify spending$500 on a terrific-sounding musical toy (and I use that word in a verypositive sense), you won't go wrong with the MicroKorg.

PROS:Low price. Huge sound. Compact andlightweight. Can run on batteries. Free patch editor-librarian.Numerous waveforms. Formant sampling. Includes mic. High funfactor.

CONS:Stiff, tiny keys. Crude display. Flimsy knobs. Four-note polyphony.Fiddly editing. Few factory patches use Velocity. Unlabeled Shiftfunctions.

David Battinois hard at work on Crank It Up to 1,a book about digital music production based on interviews withgroundbreaking artists, producers, and visionaries. More atwww.crankitupto1.com.